“‘I Heard a Voice’: the Music of the Golden Age”

Thus, in an anthology of the music of Thomas
Weelkes, Orlando Gibbons, and Thomas Tomkins—composers active under both
Elizabeth I and James I—we hear persistent echoes of Byrd and his
generation, especially in formal procedures and harmonic and melodic idiom. And
it is this repertory that the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the
viol consort, Fretwork, address in their recording “I Heard a

There a few surprises in either the selections or the performances. Both the
choir and instrumental ensemble are in generally superb form, and works like
Weelkes’s “Alleluia, I heard a voice,” Gibbons’s
“This is the record of John,” and the settings of “When David
heard” by Weelkes and Tomkins have long achieved an iconic familiarity.
If the age was golden, then these are works that have repeatedly offered a
degree of “gilty” pleasure.

Familiar, or no, the anthology is well constructed to show the range of the
repertory. Several pieces fall into the category of “full
anthem”—i.e., fully choral throughout—and among these are
fine examples of the degree to which the busy bustle of ebullient lines was
both exploited and artistically controlled by composers of the day.
Gibbons’s “Hosanna to the Son of David” and similar works
tend to sparkle here, though admittedly Cleobury maintains a tight rein:
ecclesiastical propriety trumps unbounded effusion! Tomkins’s
twelve-voice “O Praise the Lord” is the fullest of the full;
surprisingly it emerges mired in an uncharacteristic muddiness that may
ultimately have more to do with chapel acoustics than choral rendition.

As a foil to the ebullient anthems, several works underscore the
melancholic, lamentative propensities of the age. The two settings of
“When David heard”—the psalmist’s lament over the death
of his son, Absalom—are exquisitely plaintive. The crystalline control of
the choral sound brings the poignance into an intense focus, and the affective
power of these gestures creates some of the most memorable moments of the

The collaborations with viols are an important reminder that an important
part of this repertory figured in domestic devotional settings, apart from the
chapel. Weelkes’s “Most mighty and all knowing Lord” is a
strophic consort song that would have easily graced less formal venues, and is
engagingly sung by alto David Allsopp. “Verse
anthems”—anthems alternating instrumentally accompanied solo
sections with choral sections—often survive in versions for both organ or
viol consort, suggestive of chapel and domestic performance. Arguably the best
known example is Gibbons’s brilliant “This is the record of
John.” Performed here in the familiar viol version, an otherwise strong
rendition is besmirched by an excess of vibrato in the solo tenor that detracts
from the ensemble blend and shaping of contours.

Such missteps are few. “I heard a voice” presents one of the
standard bearers of the English choral tradition in a repertory that surely
lies close to its heart. And given that, it is no surprise that it is a
recording to savor.

Steven Plank

image_description=I heard a voice
product_title=“‘I Heard a Voice’: the Music of the Golden Age”
product_by=Choir of King’s College, Cambridge; Fretwork; Stephen Cleobury,
product_id=EMI 0946 3 94430 2 4 [CD]